The exact origin of the riddle is obscure. Its first known appearance in print occurred in 1847 in The Knickerbocker, a New York monthly magazine.
The joke is reportedly codified into law in at least one municipality of the USA.
A Quitman, Georgia ordinance prohibits chickens from crossing the road.
Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road?
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
This joke works off the fact that the answer, "[t]o get to the other side," is self-evident. To clarify, imagine this joke being prefaces by a slew of similar jokes, but with different, more absurd punchlines. For example:
Q: Why did the cow cross the road?
A: To go to the moooooo-vies!
Q: Why did the bunny cross the road?
A: Because a car was coming!
Now, we attach our subject joke. Notice how this new context affects the punchline:
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: To get to the other side.
The unexpected, patently obvious answer stands in stark - and, it is expected, humourous - contrast to the other jokes. I speculate that the genesis of the chicken-joke lies in some situation such as the one illustrated above, but over time the original context of the joke was lost, which left the chicken sadly decontextualized.
This joke has become so decontextualized over time that many people don't even know what they're trying to say when they reference the joke. I have observed this joke cited as an example of bad humour1, as "the first joke"2, &c. It is not a side-splitter, it's true, but in its proper context I'd say it's funnier than the jokes that preface it, in the manner of the "Orange you glad I didn't say banana" punchline in the well-known "Knock Knock" joke is the payoff to all the banana "jokes" that have come before. Further, it is highly unlikely that this is the original joke, as humour must have existed before the existance of roads, and perhaps even before the Gallus genus (e.d. : chicken species).
WHY DID THE CHICKEN CROSS THE ROAD?
Answers by the famous and infamous:
Plato: For the greater good.
Karl Marx: It was a historical inevitability.
Machiavelli: So that its subjects will view it with admiration, as a chicken which has the daring and courage to boldly cross the road, but also with fear, for whom among them has the strength to contend with such a paragon of avian virtue? In such a manner is the princely chicken's dominion maintained.
Hippocrates: Because of an excess of light pink gooey stuff in it’s pancreas.
Jacques Derrida: Any number of contending discourses may be discovered within the act of the chicken crossing the road, and each interpretation is equally valid as the authorial intent can never be discerned, because structuralism is DEAD, DAMMIT, DEAD!
Thomas de Torquemada: Give me ten minutes with the chicken and I'll find out.
Timothy Leary: Because that's the only kind of trip the Establishment would let it take.
Nietzsche: Because if you gaze too long across the Road, the Road gazes also across you.
Oliver North: National Security was at stake.
B.F. Skinner: Because the external influences which had pervaded its sensorium from birth had caused it to develop in such a fashion that it would tend to cross roads, even while believing these actions to be of its own free will.
Carl Jung: The confluence of events in the cultural gestalt necessitated that individual chickens cross roads at this historical juncture, and therefore synchronicitously brought such occurrences into being.
Jean-Paul Sartre: In order to act in good faith and be true to itself, the chicken found it necessary to cross the road.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: The possibility of "crossing" was encoded into the objects "chicken" and "road", and circumstances came into being which caused the actualization of this potential occurrence.
Albert Einstein: Whether the chicken crossed the road or the road crossed the chicken depends upon your frame of reference.
Aristotle: To actualize its potential.
Buddha: If you ask this question, you deny your own chicken nature.
Howard Cosell: It may very well have been one of the most astonishing events to grace the annals of history. An historic, unprecedented avian biped with the temerity to attempt such an herculean achievement formerly relegated to homo sapien pedestrians is truly a remarkable occurence.
Salvador Dali: The Fish.
Darwin: It was the logical next step after coming down from the trees.
Emily Dickinson: Because it could not stop for death.
Epicurus: For fun.
Ralph Waldo Emerson: It didn't cross the road; it transcended it.
Johann von Goethe: The eternal hen-principle made it do it.
Ernest Hemingway: To die. In the rain.
Werner Heisenberg: We are not sure which side of the road the chicken was on, but it was moving very fast.
David Hume: Out of custom and habit.
Jack Nicholson: 'Cause it (censored) wanted to. That's the (censored) reason.
Pyrrho the Skeptic: What road?
Ronald Reagan: I forget.
John Sununu: The Air Force was only too happy to provide the transportation, so quite understandably the chicken availed himself of the opportunity.
The Sphinx: You tell me.
Mr. T: If you saw me coming you'd cross the road too!
Henry David Thoreau: To live deliberately ... and suck all the marrow out of life.
Mark Twain: The news of its crossing has been greatly exaggerated.
Molly Yard: It was a hen!
Zeno of Elea: To prove it could never reach the other side.
Chaucer: So priketh hem nature in hir corages.
Wordsworth: To wander lonely as a cloud.
The Godfather: I didn't want its mother to see it like that.
Keats: Philosophy will clip a chicken's wings.
Blake: To see heaven in a wild fowl.
Dr Johnson: Sir, had you known the Chicken for as long as I have, you would not so readily enquire, but feel rather the Need to resist such a public Display of your own lamentable and incorrigible Ignorance.
Mrs Thatcher: This chicken's not for turning.
Supreme Soviet: There has never been a chicken in this photograph.
Oscar Wilde: Why, indeed? One's social engagements whilst in town ought never expose one to such barbarous inconvenience - although, perhaps, if one must cross a road, one may do far worse than to cross it as the chicken in question.
Kafka: Hardly the most urgent enquiry to make of a low-grade insurance clerk who woke up that morning as a hen.
Swift: It is, of course, inevitable that such a loathsome, filth-ridden and degraded creature as Man should assume to question the actions of one in all respects his superior.
Macbeth: To have turned back were as tedious as to go o'er.
Freud: An die andere Seite zu kommen. (Much laughter)
Hamlet: That is not the question.
Donne: It crosseth for thee.
Pope: It was mimicking my Lord Hervey.
Constable: To get a better view.
P.E.T.A.: We must raise the road and install tunnels to provide safe access for the chickens.
George W. Bush: It had the WMD's.
Barrack Obama: In hopes of getting our Government Healthcare Plan.
Roseanne Barr: "Burp" What chicken?
After hours of study I stll had no answer to the question.
But even more important to me was to find an answer to my question: "Why do MY chickens cross the road?"
They dislike the traffic very much. The shrubbery is the same as I have growing on my side of the road. There is no evidence of them laying eggs there. So why do they cross the road????